Best Thing I Read This Week: Date and Time of Loss by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

3 Oct

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee’s essay “Date and Time of Loss” in Sundog Lit’s Road Issue combines the best of Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” with upfront introspection cuts to the chase. Lee doesn’t mess around. She tells her story, unflinchingly, full knowing she’s picking at old scabs, tracing her fingers over old scars—literally and figuratively, we discover. From a car accident in Seattle to a few years later when her husband tells her, over the phone, that he wants a divorce, Lee’s essay knocks the wind out of you.

Opening with a police report that gives us just the facts, Lee then enters to explain and flesh things out, describing what exactly flashed before her eyes when she turned and saw a Mitsubishi hurtling toward her. Even though she lists everything she didn’t remember in a sequence recalling “Bullet in the Brain”—and if you’re gonna imitate, good choice—we still learn about Lee, her travels, her past, her husband, her family, her values, the things she holds dear. Her language in this section, while loaded with imagery, never tips into effusion or begs for pity. She simply states her case: “I remember vertigo and disorientation. I remember wind as I flew. If I were in Murakami novel, that would have been the moment cats began talking.” Clearly, this experience is for her like something out of magical realism, something she never imagined would happen to her, could happen.

In the wake of the accident, Lee searches the asphalt for her scattered lipstick tubes, clutching onto small things to avoid or to deal with the very big thing that just happened. The driver cries and apologizes over and over. Lee calls her husband, who’s in the middle of a business meeting, and, while in conversation, is astonished to see her shoe feet away from her, near the curb. She grapples with this, feels the rough asphalt beneath her, tells her husband she doesn’t know if she’s ok. An ambulance wails. Throughout the ordeal, Lee references movies (the EMT does not care for Love Actually), Space Mountain, her Chanel lipstick, as if it is these things that will pull her through, these things that will allow her to make sense of what’s happened, of her being struck by a car.

Lee is blindsided again, a few years after the car hit her in the Seattle crosswalk, and this figurative accident at first felt too pat, fit too neatly into the arc of the essay. But when you remove your hardened outer layer and compare the vulnerability Lee felt in crosswalks for years after her accident to the pain she feels after her husband says he wants a divorce, the piece balances like a Calder mobile, something that looks improbable but remains upright and works. On her blog, Lee writes about this piece: “Another event in my life intersected with this trauma; the end of my marriage. That the two feel the same…I didn’t begin writing Date and Time of Loss with the intention of intertwining the two events. But that is what the work wanted me to do.”

Some of Lee’s balanced imagery comes off as a little trite—the bruises and the lavender aura of invisibility—but it’s mostly forgivable. By combining these two events, comparing her bruises and the damage done, Lee hopes to use one event as a lens to deal with the other and vice versa, as a means to cope and move on. Lee’s honesty and attention to telling detail and imagery elevate her essay, inviting you in just enough, like a long-time friend finally sharing the secret of her scar.

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